Saxophonist John Doheny was born in Seattle Washington in 1953 but has spent much of his adult life in Canada, primarily in Vancouver and Toronto. After early experiences accompanying strippers in bars and cabarets he became a professional R&B sideman in the late 1970s, touring and recording with artists both prominent and obscure. In 1991 he returned to Vancouver and began a program of intense musical study, both in academe (Vancouver Community College, the University of British Columbia) and in the more informal area of performance. He asserts that "all human intercourse is either an opportunity to learn or to teach. Everything that I know about jazz performance (to the extent that I know anything at all) I owe to those players, teachers and students who have suffered to share the bandstand and the teaching studio with me." Since 2003, Mr. Doheny has been a permanent resident of New Orleans, Louisiana, but makes every effort to spend summers in Canada because "it's too damn hot down here then."

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Doheny Interviews Doheny, Part 3.

We'd been talking before about technique, and you'd managed to get yourself all balled up in what seemed to me to be some contradictory statements. Would you care to untangle them?

I thought I was being pretty straightforward actually, but I'll try a different approach.  If we use an analogy like, say, language, then obviously if you're trying to get a complex and nuanced point across, it's best if you have the widest vocabulary possible. On the other hand, if you have nothing to say, all the ten dollar words in the world won't make it sound like anything more than what it is...empty bullshit.

Okay, but what about so-called "primitive" folk artists, like blues singers.  Are you saying these musicians, who obviously aren't technicians, are not expressive?

But are these people really "primitive? Just because Robert Johnson didn't play like Julian Bream doesn't mean he wasn't a virtuouso. And even guys who are seemingly just banging on the guitar and hollering are often using a very large vocabulary of expressive techniques, they're just not "classical" techniques.  Check out, say, Son House doing "John the Revelator." All he's doing is kind of chanting the lyrics and clapping his hands, but holy cow is that shit intense! You try doing that sometime. The way that he places the words, punches some of them and pulls back others, where he places them in the time stream. And the intent behind it, he really wants to get that message across, and he's got total mastery of the musical materials he needs to do it. I was on a gig once about ten years ago where this guy, he was a radio announcer, decided he was going to do Tom Waits's "Step Right Up," which is a kind of beatnik-hipster monologue done with bass, drums and tenor sax. This guy figured, hey, I make my living talking on the radio, all Waits is doing is talking over some music, I can do that. The bass player on the gig, my good buddy Jasper Clarke who passed away last year, tried to warn him, "hey man. This shit is harder than it looks." But the guy went ahead anyway, figuring he'd just toss it off, and it was one of the more embarrassing moments I've endured onstage, I mean the guy was just twisting slowly in the wind. Just awful.

Another example. Some friends of mine once accompanied a female "rock" singer who decided she wanted to do Billie Holiday's version of "What A Little Moonlight Can Do." This was a person with, technically, a much better set of pipes than Billie, who had about a three note range. This singer was a real belter, but she had no concept of phrasing, no idea of swing, beyond hearing Billie do it and thinking "hey, that's cool." But you have to learn how to do these things, it takes time and study, even though it sounds easy. But it's not easy. If it was, everyone would do it.

It's disrespectful to approach music, any music, with that kind of casual attitude. That's why I'm so indifferent to the charms of stuff like the early Rolling Stones and Beatles versions of classic blues and R&B stuff. I mean why on earth would I want to listen to the Rolling Stones fuck up "Time is On My Side" when I can listen to Irma Thomas's original? I don't understand how they could even put that crap out, you know? I mean, the guitars aren't even in tune. They obviously just kind of clanked around with it for awhile, thought, "okay, good enough," and put it in their repertoir. Then figured it was cool because if you stand back fifty feet and squint, it sort of sounds okay. That's an insult to all the people who sweat bullets to get their point across, like Irma and Son House.

Okay, this is starting to make a little more sense. You seem to be saying that a musician needs the tools to get his message across. But what is this "message?"

Again, you're going to hate me when I say this, but I don't think these things are necessarily something that can be expressed in words. And I'm talking about "songs" that have lyrics as well. Because when you write down a lot of supposedly "poetic" song lyrics, they actually look pretty dumb on the page. Especially if you stack em up next to real poetry, like Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gently Into That Good Night," or Henry Reed's "Naming of Parts." But Billie Holiday singing "Strange Fruit," which actually started it's life as a pretty mediocre poem...that's heavy, heavy stuff.

The problem is, we're talking about intangibles here, and also (and here I'm going to say something else that's going to piss you off) we're talking about things that become clearer over time, as you get some age under your belt. Or maybe it's just me, I dunno. But it's like, yeah, I "dug" B.B. King and John Coltrane and Son House and Robert Johnson when I was 16, but I was only "digging" down into the first couple of layers of what those people do. As I got into my 30s and 40s, their work began to have more resonance for me. And just lately man, I've been revisiting some cats I haven't listened to in a while, and wow! It's like the veil has fallen from in front of my eyes, you know? I've been digging on some Ike Quebec recently, a CD I've had for maybe 15 years, but hadn't listened to for quite awhile, and it was like...WHAM! The stuff is just so deep, man, so soulful. It sets me back on my pins.

This has been very interesting, but we probably need to wrap it up, since we both have actual lives to attend to. Any closing thoughts about your own development as a musician?

Wow, you sure know how to snap a shiv, don't you *laughs* And stick it in. I have to be careful how I answer this, because if I confess how badly I  think I suck, nobody'll pay to come hear me.

Seriously, everyone has inner doubts, absolutely everyone. The heaviest players you can name have their bad days, and no way do I put myself on that level. I've always told my students that I speak to them as a fellow sufferer, not as some all-seeing Jedi Master of Jazz who's got it all figured out. No matter how good you think you are, there's always someone better to put you in your place.

One of the great things about New Orleans is the opportunity to be humiliated, on a regular basis, by players who will just mercilessly kick your ass on the bandstand. And it's not always the "big dogs" doing it either; I mean, there's no shame, to me, in being cut by Branford Marsalis or Tim Warfield, I can live with that no problem. But when it's some student less than half your age whacking you all over the stand all night long, that's a humbling experience.

For example last night, I went to sit in on Jesse Mcbride's "Next Generation" gig out at the Steak Knife in Lakeview. Jesse's rhythm section is as good as it gets, Max Moran on bass and Joe Dyson Jr. on drums. These are cats who are starting to get international reputations through touring with guys like Donald Harrison, but a few years ago they were just little weed-hopper students of Jesse's. And now here they are at this nothing gig in a steakhouse, playing with Jesse's new crop of weed-hoppers.

On trumpet is a young guy named John Michael Bradford, who I think is about 16 and just started at NOCCA. Jasmine Butler sat in on drums for a bit, as did Steve Lands on trumpet, who plays in Delfeayo Marsalis's big band.

It's a strange vibe for me, because I feel I am Jesse's student too, even though he's almost 30 years younger than me. But his pedagogical approach is so hip, you feel like you just have to leave all vanity and ego behind and just...address the music. And Jesse's tunes that he plays on that gig always have a purpose, either as some iconic but little known (outside of New Orleans) composition by James Black or Harold Battiste or Ellis Marsalis that he wants to pass on, or as examples of various technical things that all jazz improvisers need to master. Often they include both these aspects.

I'm generally a pretty gregarious guy, I love to socialize`and cut up and such, but lately when I go on Jesse's gig to sit in, I try not to do that much. I feel like I need to shut up and get serious about Jesse's music, because there's so much to learn there, and I see the people who've put themselves in the service of his concepts have become such fine musicians, and I'd like a little of that for myself.

I wasn't feeling so good when I got there last night, and I didn't think I was playing well. I was screwing stuff up in weird ways, like tunes I thought I'd at least got a handle on, like James Black's "Dee Wee" and Ellis Marsalis's "Swingin At The Haven," I was kacking stuff, fluffing lines. Jesse is playing "Dee Wee," which is a super-hard, mixed meter thing, a little faster than I'm used to, so I was a bit forgiving of myself for messing that up. But he played "Swingin" at a slower tempo than usual, and I screwed that up too. It's like you get this comfort-zone kind of rut on some tunes, and if you get pushed out of that, it's harder to deal. At least it is for me.

But I was watching John Michael on trumpet, here's this kid, he's just got so much heart, you know? Even when he's messing up, he just keeps pushing, and he searches and finds his way, and by the end of the solo, he's got something he can sit back down with and feel good, you know?

So I kind of took that to heart and figured there's something for me to learn. And the last few tunes of the evening, which were mostly funk or blues things, I felt like I played some decent stuff. Mostly, I'm trying to listen and learn. From everybody. And practise. There's never enough time to practise.

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